6.4: Managing Accounts
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The information one is able to see, the content one is able to create, and the interactions one is allowed when using any web service depends on the permissions that are assigned to the user. When a web service is first configured, super administrator accounts are created, and individuals who log on with those credentials exert complete control over how the services are to be configured for all of the users within the organization and also make some changes that can affect the operation of the software for all users in the organization. Typically, the super administrator will create other administrator accounts to manage the regular operation of the web service and will use the super administrator account only when changing the configuration of the services.
Many school IT managers find it necessary to support web services from multiple publishers (for example different vendors are likely to provide email, productivity suites, learning management system, student information system, electronic portfolio system, library catalog, and full-text databases for library patrons). Logging on to each system can require a different set of credentials, and users who follow the recommended security practice of having different passwords for each site, are likely to find they forget passwords, so it is necessary to reset passwords frequently.
To minimize the barrier presented by multiple credentials, IT managers can select web services that allow for single-sign on (SSO). A common SSO strategy is to use Google’s application program interface (API) to connect web-services to the G Suite domain managed by the school. This allows keys to be shared between web services, so that the credentials on G Suite are used to log on to other systems. In addition to minimizing the number of credentials that users must remember, this scheme provides for centralized management of credentials as changes made to the G Suite profile are reflected in all connected SSO systems.
Regardless of the methods used to manage accounts on different web services, one challenge facing school IT managers is that significant parts of their populations are under 13 years of age. Laws in the United States prevent organizations that provide web services from keeping personal information about young users without explicit permission from the youngster’s parent or guardian. For this reason, school IT managers take extraordinary care in vetting the web services that will be used by students and they take extraordinary care in configuring account settings to minimize potential threats to students’ information.
Systems for Internal Clients use for Teaching and Learning
Internal clients are those users who belong to the organization and who are subject to the policies and procedures of the organization. In schools, this includes teachers, staff, and students, but also in some situations parents and outside consultants who have the need to access information about the students. School IT managers do provide and support web services that facilitate efficient instruction as well as those that provide for interaction and collaboration for internal clients.
Web Services for Instruction
It has been established that some concepts and skills can be broken down into steps and proceduresthat are clearly and explicitly presented and practiced, and performance can be clearly measured. Because of these characteristics, they can easily be translated into computer programs. Further, the databases used to store Web 2.0 data can be used to record a wide range of information about students’ progress through instructional materials that are on the web.
Designing effective instructional materials can be very expensive as it is time-intensive and requires content expertise, design expertise, and programming expertise; but deploying digital instructional materials is done via the web at minimal marginal cost. Once the materials exist, the cost of having additional users access it are small; IT professionals would say, “they scale well.” For these economic reasons, instructional web services used in a school are often provided by organizations external to the school. In the most frequently used model, school leaders subscribe to a service that entitles them to create and manage accounts for students and teachers. Teachers then select the content that will be available to their students, and the content is accessed as part of the school day and also at times outside the school day. A variety of statistics regarding students’ use of the system and performance are displayed on a dashboard. In most of these systems; the content, the path and pacing, and the performance are all controlled by algorithms and information programmed into the system.
Instructional web services are available for many content areas, but vendors tend to produce materials for mathematics, computer programming, test preparation, and similar well-known and easy-to-measure content areas. Both commercial entities as well as non-profit organizations create such content. Khan Academy is a non-profit organization that is well-known for the instructional materials it has made available and the tools that can be used to track learners’ performance. While many have considered the role of such content in both K-12 education as well as higher education, the role of these organizations in a system of accredited educational institutions has yet to be resolved education (Gebril, 2016; Zengin, 2017). For school IT managers, providing and managing web services for instructional purposes is largely focused on working with teachers to vet the systems they identify as meeting their needs, and that conform to the acceptable technology use policy of the school. They configure the systems for easy access and monitor access to ensure it conforms to the terms of service of the producer. IT professionals then ensure there is sufficient data rate (bandwidth) and the LAN is configured to provide robust access and that web browsers are updated to ensure instructional web services are fully functional.
Productivity suites are collections of computer applications that are used for creating documents and information; a productivity suite will include a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, and other applications depending on the tools that have been developed by the publisher and the version of the suite that is being used. For most of the history of desktop computing, Microsoft’s Office (with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint among other applications) has been the most popular productivity suite and it is widely used in both schools and businesses. Using Microsoft Office requires one to purchase a license and install the software on a hard drive of the computer upon which one intended to use it. Unless the suite had been installed on the computer that you were using, it was unavailable to you.
Creating word processing documents, presentations, and spreadsheets has been a fundamental purpose of using computers for generations of students and teachers, and these types of files continue to be one of the functions essential to computer users in schools. While Microsoft Office continues to be very widely used, productivity suites that are available as web services and that find users creating word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and other documents in a web browser are gaining a large share of the educational users. Google’s G Suite, formally called Google Application for Education (GAFE), is the most dominant cloudcomputing platform; Microsoft’s OneDrive and Zoho are other examples, but G Suite is by far the most dominant in the educational market. (Questions about the degree to which Google has monetized public schools and the data about interactions in school are recognized, but have been excluded from consideration here.) All cloud productivity suites operate under similar models. Once they log on, users will see the tools for creating and managing files, files they have created earlier, and even files that have been created by others and have been shared with them in their web browser.
Compared to managing local computing resources, there are several advantages of providing cloud-based productivity. For the students and teachers, cloud-based productivity suites make files and software available on any computer where there is an Internet connection and an up-to-date web browser. Prior to this web service, files were stored locally on computer hard drives or other read only devices (disks of various materials or small circuits of flash memory that plugged into USB ports). While those media were very portable, they were also localized, and without access to the media, there was no access to one’s files; forgetting a USB drive meant spending the day without access to one’s files. With cloud productivity, files can be accessed from any device with an Internet connection.
Incompatibility between home computers and school computers is another problem that has been resolved with cloudbased productivity suites. In the past, it was not unusual for files that were created on computers at home to be unreadable on computers at school and for files creates at school to be unreadable at home. This was the result of different software and versions of software being installed on the different computers. These problems were avoidable by using universal file formats such as rich text format for word processing files, but this step was often forgotten or ignored. Now that web-based productivity is available to school users, this problem has largely disappeared, at least for productivity files. Files can be read and edited with any computer that is connected to the web and that has an updated web browser installed. This interoperability is perhaps the most useful advantage of adopting cloud-based productivity tools in schools.
Because the files created on cloud-based productivity suites are stored on the web, each file has a unique web address and each file is associated with the account that was used to created it. Owners of these files can share them with other users’ accounts. Using this feature, students can collaborate on files and they can share files with teachers so they can edit them, comment on them, or simply view them. For example, a science teacher can share an outline for a project with students so they can view it, and they can click to make their own copy and then the members of a group can be given permission to edit the group’s copy of the outline. These files can also be embedded in other places on the web (used as mash-ups), so others can view students work as well. The teacher can then comment on the final version to give feedback.
In addition to advantages of cloud productivity suites for end users, it provides advantage for IT managers. Security, upgrades, backups, and other management tasks fall to the providers of the system. One effect of accepting others’ management decisions is that the providers of the system can push changes to users, and those can be implemented without the input or consent of the users (this is not true of all changes, and most changes are announced months in the future, but features that teachers use only occasionally may be changed before teachers can respond). Consider, for example, a teacher who prepared to teach students to write research papers using specific tools in Google Apps for Education. If the managers and engineers of GAFE decided to deprecate or remove one of those tools when upgrading to G Suite, then it will be unavailable to the teacher and her students who now use G Suite; they have no choice but to adapt to the changes made by Google.
For a variety of economic reasons, many providers of cloud productivity suites do make them available at little or no cost to educational populations. As productivity suites do provide educationally relevant (and important) functionality, and because proprietary productivity suites can be very expensive, many schools realize significant cost savings when they adopt cloud productivity.
Content management systems (CMS) are web content creation and publishing platforms that incorporate many Web 2.0 tools into a single site; users with accounts on the CMS can add, edit, and manage information and media on those parts of the site they have permission to edit. Some content management systems have been designed specifically for managing content and interaction for educational purposes, and these are typically referred to as learning management systems (LMS). Open source LMS platforms have matured to the point where they are easily and inexpensively available and can be installed by school IT managers with modest skills and modest budgets. These tools can be used to support many aspects of teaching and learning in schools (Ackerman, in press).
By providing and supporting an LMS, IT managers in schools enable teachers to offer online sections of courses and they enable blended or hybrid courses in which online activities supplement face-to-face lessons. With an LMS installed, teachers can engage students with a wide range of digital tools from one site. A full service LMS will provide:
File sharing, so teachers can make templates, word processing files, PDF copies of articles, presentation files, and other files available to students who can access the materials independently;
- Html editors, which support embedded media, so teachers and other course creators can build content pages that incorporate both the content they compose and media from other sources;
- Tests and quizzes that include items (such a multiple-choice questions) that can be graded by the system and those that must be graded by the instructor;
- Assignment drop boxes, so students can submit digital files that are time stamped and grading rubrics, mark-up tools, and other options for providing students with feedback;
- Gradebooks that display both assignments and tests that are part of the LMS as well as columns for off-line work;
- Discussion boards, blogs, journals, wikis and chat rooms that facilitate both asynchronous and synchronous interaction and collaboration.
While these functions are all available on separate platforms, IT managers in schools who implement learning management systems cite several reasons they support the LMS rather than separate participatory web services as the most efficacious method of providing these services. First, IT managers are responsible for supporting the technology that is used for teaching and learning. If teachers are allowed to select the participatory sites they use with students, then IT managers must either learn multiple platforms or they must provide less than adequate support. It is unreasonable to expect technology support professionals to support many and disparate systems, and it is unreasonable to expect students to become facile users of different systems that provide the same functionality. By using a single collection of digital tools, teachers reduce the cognitive load (Sweller, Ayres, & Kalyuga, 2011) that students experience if they must learn to use multiple systems for the same purpose.
Second, using an LMS allows teachers to share grading rubrics, assignments, and other resources across all of the courses taught in a school through templates. Consider a school that offers many sections of a social studies course. Using the capacity to create a course template in an LMS, IT managers can efficiently deploy all of the resources needed by students who enroll in a social studies course. The syllabus, resources, readings, links, assignments, and other features common to all sections of the course can be deployed immediately in the template, then teachers can customize their sites on the LMS for the sections they teach. Further, templates can be used to create courses to allow for more consistent appearance of the site and for consistent tools which can decrease the extraneous cognitive load of using the site and interacting with course materials.
Third, by using the one LMS provided by the school, teachers have more access to support (in using the site) and in troubleshooting and custom configurations than they do when using disparate and separate Web 2.0 tools for teaching and learning. The convenience extends to students as well as they can access materials for all course through a single site and the navigation strategies used in one class will be effective in all other classes.
Fourth, by using an LMS, IT managers and teachers allow data flow between the school’s student information system and the LMS. While this frequently requires additional configuration (including programming help from the providers of the systems which is similar to the level of support needed when installing network upgrades), it can allow for automated enrollment management and transfer of grade information. Administrators of an LMS also have access to users’ accounts, so they can both manage and troubleshoot accounts and assess and resolve problems. A student who forgets his or her password to a participatory web site may spend many minutes resetting it through email, but the same process on an LMS managed by the school can be completed in far less time. Managing user accounts on an LMS can also be eased by connecting other Web 2.0 accounts to the LMS. For example, using Google applications programing interface (API) and extensions to the LMS, IT professionals can configure an LMS so that G Suite accounts are used to log on.
Freemium sites allow limited use of sites, generally for personal purposes, and users of the free version see advertisements embedded in the pages they use. Those advertisements may include products inappropriate for students, and requiring students to view advertisements as part of their school work may violate teachers’ ethics and school policy.
Once IT managers decide to provide an LMS they have several decisions to make. First, they must decide on the LMS platform to obtain. There are several options, including those from proprietary publishers as well as those developed and supported by open source communities. The functions available are largely the same on each, and how they function depends on the exact version that is installed as well as the features that are enabled and the thirdparty extensions that are installed.
Second, IT managers must decide a server on which the LMS will be installed. Typically, they select to a) purchase space on a server provided by a company that specializes in hosting the LMS, b) install the LMS on a LAN server, or c) install the LMS on a web hosting service. Each choice has advantages and disadvantages including cost, responsibility for backing-up files and configuring access, and the flexibility of configurations. In general, IT managers can purchase complete LMS management functions and server management, but the cost can be unreasonable for many schools. Managing an LMS and the server on which it is hosted can become a full-time job, however, so those costs can become unreasonable. For IT managers, providing and managing an LMS requires negotiation to ensure it is an efficacious part of the educational technology in the school.
In many organizations and businesses, employees and members use portals that resemble an LMS for many purposes. Employees maintain institutional profiles (which allow them to be paid) and they access work schedules, and receive both organizational training and professional training through online portals. Higher education is increasingly adopting online and hybrid courses, as well. Because portals and online learning are ubiquitous outside of school, many K-12 educators believe experience with an LMS is an essential aspect of middle and high school curriculum to prepare students for the digital landscape of work and school after graduation.
Whereas the effects of instruction are generally understood to be determined by measuring learners’ ability to answer questions in a testing situation after the instruction has concluded, the outcomes of authentic learning (Herrington, Reeves, Oliver, 2014) are generally understood to be demonstrated in products and performances. Artifacts of those products and performances (along with learners’ reflection in the importance and meaning of the artifacts) are collected in portfolios. A range of web services can be adopted and adapted for creating electronic portfolios.
As with all web services, IT managers collaborate with educators to make decisions about the web services to be supported for students to make electronic portfolios. Among the important decisions that determine which technologies meet the need are the nature of the artifacts that will document the work (for example audio and video files necessitate different capacity than simply images), the physical and virtual location of the files the be included, and the intended audience for the portfolios. The nature of the students is a further consideration; the needs of high school students preparing their first professional portfolios are far more sophisticated from the needs of elementary students documenting their first project-based learning activities.
In some instances, IT managers will recommend using existing web services as a platform for electronic portfolios; the web site tool in G Suite is a popular choice. Others choose tools that are specifically designed for creating and managing electronic portfolios; Mahara (n.d.) is an example of an open source package that is used to create web-based electronic portfolios. For those students who are graduating and who are adults, IT managers sometimes recommend social networking sites as the appropriate platform for electronic portfolios as students can maintain them once they leave the school and there are already active networks of professionals on those sites that students can join.
Regardless of the web service used for electronic portfolios, they serve several purposes in schools. Eyon, Gambino, and Török (2014) compared the performance of students enrolled in courses that included electronic portfolio with students in courses that did not use that tool. They found evidence that creating an electronic portfolio was positively associated other indicators of student success in college including pass rates of courses, grade point average, and retention rate. They concluded these effects are grounded in the greater levels of reflection and metacognition that are necessary for a portfolio-based program than for one without that experience. Further, they conclude electronic portfolios become a valuable source of information to educators and school leaders as they make decisions regarding programmatic and curriculum changes and improvements.
Web Services for Libraries
As the World Wide Web has matured, many tools have been adopted by and adapted for library services. As the web has become the “place” where patrons access digital research and reference materials, librarians have both embraced digital tools to expand and extended their reach, so—despite the temptation to rely on Google for all of our information needs—libraries continue to play an essential role in schools.
In the 21st century, card catalogues in school libraries first became digital with web interfaces that pointed to databases stored on servers connected to the LAN and located in the school. Today, the databases containing catalog of collections (that can’t really be called card catalogs since the cards have bene gone for decades) have been uploaded to the web, and patrons point web browsers to pages where can browse, search, and check the availability of collections.
The nature of the periodicals available to library patrons has changed because of web services as well. School librarians purchase subscriptions that allow patrons to access full-text databases of periodicals. The list of titles that are available depends on the subscription purchased by the librarian, and the subscription may also have some other limits, but in general, library patrons can access effectively infinite collections of peer-reviewed, professional, and popular periodicals from any computer in the world.
Perhaps the most useful tool available to those who use fulltext databases, at least from the researcher’s point of view, is the automated bibliographic tools. Once a valuable resource has been identified and read (for those of us over a certain age this reading is from a paper copy were have printed and that contains our own hand-written notes), a click of a mouse button can display the full reference in the researcher’s choice of several popular style guides. Compiling a reference list requires one to copy (or export) the citation generated by a web service, paste (or import) it into a word processor, then check the format is correct. All aspects of library management and library-based research have been transformed by web services, so librarians are among the most active collaborators with IT managers in schools.